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Whitman, we need to talk

Obviously I’m a big fan of Whitman. If you haven’t realized that yet you may need to stop sleeping during class. However, reading the Morris article I was forced to come to terms with a side of Whitman that I’m not so much a fan of. He was kind of racist, and by kind of I mean, he was just racist. Now I have mentioned before that Whitman clearly didn’t speak for the masses as much as he wished to. He tried to be all inclusive but he failed to include women to the extent he included men and although he spoke several times of being there for the slaves as well as the masters, Morris makes it clear that he did not mean this in an equal rights kind of way.

This is where Whitman’s belief in his own power of observation causes a difficulty with his message. As is clear from his poetry, particularly pieces such as “Song of Myself,” Whitman has a belief that observation of the world leads to pure understanding of the world. This idea is rather flawed considering the fact that several people can view the same thign in a variety of different ways. Just look at Rorschach ink blots.

What surprises me is that Whitman did not have this epiphany on his own considering his rapid and rather drastic change in views from 1855 to 1867, and even within Drum Taps. the man goes from describing death as a beautiful stage in the cycle of life to a disease which fills the earth with compost. Clearly he realized one could change one’s opinion about things, but I guess this doesn’t necessarily mean he understood that one could have differing opinions.

The problem however, is that I do not think that he could have produced much of the work he did without this belief. He couldn’t have spoken in such grandiose terms without being confident in his right to speak them. Nor do I think that he was incorrect in believing in his right to speak this way. The problem, I think, is that there were no other poets that could match him. Whitman speaks of the Great American Poet, and seems to imply that he is that poet, but he doesn’t recognize that he alone cannot manage to speak for the country.

America, needed, and still needs really, someone with Whitman’s confidence and talent who is able to fill in other views in society. There needs to be a female Whitman, Waltina if you will, and and African-American Whitman, and a Latin-American Whitman, and on and on. One man cannot speak for all, as much as Whitman wanted this to be the case.

I think Whitman recognized this in his own life while caring for the soldiers, with all the good he did he still realized that he could not address all the soldiers, or befriend them all before they died. What he failed to realize was that this was more than just an issue of time constraint, but a issue of world view and understanding. I think if Whitman lived in today’s world he would have understood that, although he might not have been able to develop teh grandiose attitude which shapes his poetry.

I think the best thing to do is to recognize Whitman’s limitations in his writing but understand that his message still stands.

Whitman in Russia

I don’t think this is a very good article, but hey, it has got Whitman so it’s going in the blog.

Clinton and Whitman

Reynolds, we meet again.

Reading Reynolds made me consider a side of Whitman I had not really looked at before, Whitman the Patriot. I knew he was a patriot, and I realized that he thought America was the greatest place on earth (he hadn’t had a chance to go to Disney World yet) but i hadn’t really considered the implications of that.

Whitman was very much a Unionist, he wouldn’t, and couldn’t, abide a country that was not unified. Not because he thought the south deserved to subjugated to northern law or anything so dramatic, rather he simply felt that America could never reach its potential unless it was brought together as one country. Reynolds speaks of Whitman as one of many who was glorifying the war, writing about it as chance for great change. From my readings though I have trouble finding this Whitman, the Whitman whose eyes glittered whenever a bomb dropped or another soldier marched out to battle. Recognizing Whitman as a patriot though, I realize this must have been, to an extent, how he felt. The war was a chance for glory, for honor, a chance to defend the country. Because of this Whitman would have felt it was something glorious, but his writings suggest a different tone.

It was difficult to find a way to reconcile these two understandings of Whitman in my mind, the Whitman that I read, the tender, caring, empathetic Whitman, with the war-loving, battle frenzied Whitman Reynolds speaks of. The only way I’ve been able to do this was to go back and consider Whitman’s original goals, all the way back in 1855 Song of Myself.

Back then, Whitman was an idealist. He wanted everyone to hold hands, sing kumbaya, and revel in some nature. As the war approached though, the country was strained. It had been at odds with itself for a long time before the actual fighting started and everyone knew. Whitman, I’m sure, saw the country falling apart and knew he had to readdress his understanding of how America would reach this state of utopia he so wanted. This is where, I think, the war-loving Whitman came in. Whitman saw the war as a chance to break the tension that had been building. At this point he still saw death as part of the renewal cycle of life, not as something venomous so he wasn’t as concerned with dying soldiers as he might have been. As the war went on however Whitman got much closer to death and saw the toll the war was taking on the men of the country he loved so well (Not in a gay way though, just in a completely normal, culturally acceptable, homoerotic way). This is where the tender, empathetic Whitman I’ve been reading comes in.

Although he still saw the war as a chance to reunite the nation, now it seems to be more of a obligation than an honor. It seems to me that Whitman, at this point, no longer thought of war as the best answer, but rather as the current answer. Rather than seeing the soldiers as the men who would change the world through battle, he saw them as the men who were changing the world through sacrifice, a sacrifice that would have been unnecessary had  peopl eonly heeded his words back in 1855.

So to an extent I believe Whitman was glorifying war, but only at first. As he progressed he lost the battle-fever that has swept the country and was left only with a need to care for those who fought so bravely for the land he loved.

Whitman and his Multitudes

So, in class tonight I was thinking about how many ways we’ve described Whitman. I thought it would be kind of cool to have a running list of the different names/personas we give to Whitman. I’m jotting down a few here, but since I don’t really have time to go back through all the blogs to catalog what we’ve called him I thought everyone could just comment as they came up with or remembered names they’d given him. Let me know if you guys think this would be worthwhile or not.

Some of the names I could remember:

Whitman-as-poet, Whitman-as-man, Whitman-as-prophet, Whitman-as-creeper, Whitman-as-lover, womanly Whitman, gay Whitman

Whitman the Man

Reading the chapter from Morris, which I loved by the way, I found myself feeling for Whitman in a way I hadn’t quite grasped before. We talked a lot last time about how his attitude towards the world, and specifically death, changed from 1855 to 1867. We talked about how seeing death up close would cause Whitman to cease seeing death as a part of a renewal cycle and begin seeing it as something to be feared. On one level I understood this and my heart ached to read Whitman’s poetry as he lamented the chaos that the Civil War had inflicted upon his beloved country. However, I wasn’t really able to grasp how much it affected him until I read his diary excerpts.

Looking back on my previous post I feel ashamed that I accused Whitman of abandoning his personal style of poetry for one of a more universal style, after reading his diaries I can see he did nothing of the sort. Every time a soldier died Whitman felt it, every time a cannonball tore through a line of troops and left craters in the blood-soaked battle field Whitman died a little inside. To him the Civil War was personal, that his fellow country men could inflict such pain and horror upon each other appears to have hurt Whitman in ways I can hardly grasp.

I’ve been struggling with the dichotomy between Whitman-the-Poet and Whitman-the-Man, hence the poem I posted earlier this week, but I feel like now that I’ve had  a glimpse of Whitman-the-Man I understand his poetry all the better for it.

In 1855 Whitman wrote poetry with the optimistic, carefree wonder of a child. He saw good and beauty in everything: the body, the soul, nature, speech, song, even death. His entire being was founded on his faith that if everyone could learn to experience the world with the same love and admiration that he did then the world would truly be perfect. He believed that if any group of people were capable of such a transformative world view it was the American people. To have these same people that he glorified in his poetry be the cause of something so horrendous as the Civil War must have been like being shot by a beloved friend. The fact that Whitman was able to maintain any sort of adherence to his prior optimism is amazing, to face the bowels of Hell and still maintain belief in Heaven is a skill reserved for only the strongest of people (I’m wandering into the field of flowery prose here, I apologize).

This post has become rather emotional and presumptuous, in that I seem to be claiming that I know Whitman in an emotionally intimate way, but I think that this may be the response Whitman was seeking all along. To stir the emotions of his reader, to have their hearts break every time one of the soldiers he loved was found laying on a stretcher covered by a gray cloth, to have them sing for joy when the soldiers returned from battle celebrating the chance to live another day.

I still need to sort out my feelings on the changes he made from 1855 to 1867, and I think reading the deathbed edition will help with that, but for right now I am content to sit by the bedside of Whitman and listen to his tales.

Whitman on the F

This poem is one that I’ve been half-remembering for several weeks now but couldn’t recall who it was by or what the name of it was. I happened to pick up the book that this poem was in while I was eating breakfast this morning and I thought I’d post it.

Just a note, I tried to maintain the formatting of the poem since I think he was trying to invoke Whitman in his style but I can’t figure out how to indent. So when you’re reading the place where the line breaks should be indented.

Whitman on the F

Crowded, morning F train from Brooklyn, a woman with mud-colored eyes
rises: cuneiform wrinkles appear

between her brows, as if her brain is squished up against the aquarium glass
of her forehead. Her lips move,

a voice so soft, we can only catch every third syllable…air…hel…ho…

The three-hours-of-sleep me yearns to whisper: louder next time lady,
as she limps past,

bare-palmed, but I’m too tired to crank down the mouth’s finicky drawbridge,
too drained to fiddle with

the combination lock attached to my wallet, so I sift through the mud
in her eyes, looking for a clue

of the life she left behind, before she started singing arias on the subway.
Over her right shoulder, I see

Walt Whitman wobble to his feet like an overflowing barrel of flesh
and beard and smile. “Here,

darling,” he wraps a white haired paw around the dandelion stem
of her spine. “Brothers and sisters,”

He bellows, “our little amaranth here needs some loving of the green
variety.” He stuffs a clump

of grass into the open mouth of her cup. Soon everyone in the car
has foliage out. he slides

a red wheelbarrow, glistening with raindrops, from under his seat, “here,”
he gleams, his teeth

ripe and white, like plums covered in snow. the poet in me hisses,
“good job, bonehead,

letting old graybeard beat you to the punch.” the big guy wedged beside me
grumbles under the mustard

canopy of his breath. “You ok?” I ask. “I hate when he does this,” he says,
thumbing at Old Walt,

“playing the jolly big shot, the vegetarian skyscraper, doing belly flops
into the spotlight,

Like his words are the organic cement, making us all one.” “Why’s
that bother you?” I ask.

“Me?” he scoffs, “I’m Walter Whitman, the human being. Can you imagine
sharing a soul

with that beast?” A smile ricochets between us. I exit the train at 42nd,
duck into a public restroom,

try, in vain, to wash Walt’s inky shadow off my fingers.

-Jeffrey McDaniel

Whitman’s Desperation

While reading Song of Myself and comparing it to the 1855 version I had a much stronger sense of being told how to understand the world. In the first reading of Song of Myself I found myself both wanting Whitman to be more structured, and getting frustrated that he seemed to think he knew the structure of the world. As I read more Whitman I forgave him for what I had previously believed to be a sort of pretension, almost a god-complex, and started to enjoy his enthusiastic wandering poetry. Then I read his 1867 version.

All the sudden the poem was completely different than how I had first read it. This was due mostly to his breaking up of the poem. For instance, in the 1855 version Whitman writes “I am mad for it to be in contact with me/The smoke of my own breath” (27). When I first read this passage I could imagine Whitman roaming though the woods, drunk on the sight of nature, his breath fogging against the leaves and vines. In the 1867 version however, Whitman puts a section break between these two lines. Now when I read it, I see the ecstatic Whitman in section one, followed by a much calmer, categorizing Whitman in section two.

I’m not saying that he didn’t intend for this to be the case, or that he even had an intention one way or the other, all I’m saying is, by putting the section breaks in it Whitman manages to lead the reader in a way that he didn’t accomplish in the 1855 version. I still haven’t decided whether I really do prefer the 1855 version, or if it’s just a matter of me not liking a change in Whitman’s style when I feel like I’ve just gotten the hang of it.

Whether I like it or not though, I have some speculation as to why this kind of change takes place. Mancuso talks about the fact that Whitman changed many of his poems to move from the personal to the national and that the 1867 Leaves of Grass was intended to show the way in which a unified nation was the only hope of rebuilding the America that Whitman had praised so often before. Mancuso gives a sense that Whitman was trying to reach out more than ever. I think that after the civil war Whitman developed a sense of urgency and desperation to make people see what he had been trying to argue since 1855. He did not feel that he could wait for everyone to discover the truth for themselves, he felt a stronger hand was needed.

This could explain why Whitman’s 1867 version was so much more structured than his 1855 version. He was worried he was losing the America he loved and felt the need to lead readers more strongly towards the ideals which he had been presenting. I say that I prefer the 1855 version, but I also don’t have a civil war to contend with, which probably makes me a little more relaxed than Whitman was at the time. I think it will be interesting to see how Whitman continues to change as the America he knows recovers from the turmoil of the Civil War.

Whitman, who are you?

I would like to know a bit more about Whitman’s life growing up. Particularly what events may have influenced his views on love, friendship, and connection. It seems like he developed very strong and radical ideas for the time. I think that more often than not, this is a consequence of belonging to a minority group, and regardless of what Reynolds says I still maintain that Whitman was gay, but there’s also always more to it than just that. It would be interesting to see how he developed these ideas and whether his childhood experiences played a role in that.

A Woman Waits for What Now?

When I sat down to do the reading for Whitman this week I was all prepared for some more descriptive work of the busy life of the farmer and the gorgeous views along the universal path. I poured myself a glass of wine and made myself some dinner, then as I sat reading I had one of those moments where, if it had been a movie, I would have dropped my monocle in my glass and uttered “My word!” to the woman with the mink wrap sitting next to me.

I found myself reading through Whitman’s poetry, particularly “A Woman Waits for Me,” with a feeling similar to, although I’m sure greatly muted, the feelings most likely felt when the book first came out. In short, I felt rather scandalized. Now I’m not particularly uncomfortable when it comes to talk of sex, although perhaps more so than some, but I hadn’t really expected such graphic detail and was a bit surprised, especially after I realized what he was referring to when he talked about “the sensitive, orbic, underlapped brothers” (I’d started the next line before I got it).

Now this post probably makes me sound a bit prudish but I think it was more the fact that I wasn’t expecting it from a book published in 1891 (shows how much I know about Whitman), then the actual poem. However, after my original “Whitman, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I took a step back to look at the poetry in context.

After a conversation with Sam P. I spent some time thinking about the time period Whitman was writing in and how that may have affected his work. I think it’s expressive of the fact that Whitman was trying to wake people up that he used such graphic language and colorful descriptions (I mean, he compares his ejaculation to a river, clearly he’s trying to make people notice). Had he used softer language, more veiled descriptions, his writing would never have had the effect that it did. If he had merely referred to his gentle caresses and loving release, or something equally as mundane and boring, people could have simply written off his work as something for schoolboys to giggle over behind the schoolhouse. Instead, people were forced to categorize his work as something scandalous and unfit for public viewing, particularly women with their weak constitutions.

Now, it seems like this would do the opposite of what Whitman wanted, which was to lead people to recognize the value of being alive, but what his scandalous work did was make people confront their values (and even as I write this I wonder why I was so scandalized by his words). In order to categorize Whitman’s work as scandalous, the readers had to address what about it was scandalous, in doing so they had to examine why such things went against their moral code. I’m sure most people simply picked up a bible and ran, but I’m betting there were a select few who were able to look at Whitman’s words and wonder “Why don’t we celebrate our sexuality?” I’m not saying these people then ran over to Whitman’s house and ravished him, although maybe some did, but at least the thought was there. Now that they were thinking it, Whitman’s plan was in motion. If they could question that belief for even a moment, couldn’t they question the value of slavery? Of suppression of women? Of the mistreatment of laborers?

So yes, Whitman managed to scandalize and shock, but he also managed to plant a seed of awareness, which after all, is the beginning of his utopia. So Whitman, I may be a little uncomfortable hearing you talk about “the limpid liquid in a young man” or your “slow rude muscle” but bravo to your bravery, bravo to your scandal.

Brendon’s Image Gloss

“Where cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen, and andirons straddle the hearth-slab…”

Andiron: Either of a pair of metal supports for firewood used on a hearth and made of a horizontal bar mounted on short legs with usually a vertical shaft surmounting the front end. (Merriam-Webster)

Often cast in the form of a statue or with elaborate decorations. Also referred to as a fire-dog for its dog like appearance. (Encyclopedia-Britannica)

The andiron imagery in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is one of the many ways in which he invokes the spirit of the common person. The andiron was a tool used by everyone but, as can be seen in the two pictures above, they can range over varying degrees of ornateness. This is yet another way for Whitman to show how every individual is connected to one another even through things as simple as fire-dogs.

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